Remembering Richard John Neuhaus
The April issue of First Things is a beautiful and moving tribute to a great man. I have been a subscriber to First Things for many years and a reader for many more. The magazine has been extremely influential in my Christian development—in particular, the writings and example of Richard John Neuhaus. I recently became a Catholic after roughly thirteen years of studying, pondering, and praying. The move from evangelicalism to Catholicism is no small one, and the works of Fr. Neuhaus greatly aided me. I never had the privilege of meeting Fr. Neuhaus, but his passing is a profound personal loss nonetheless. Thank you for your tender handling of his death over these past months, and thank you for a fitting memorial to a man whom so many admired and loved, even if some of us had to do so from a distance. May God bless all of you as you continue the work he began.
Cardinal Gibbons High School
Raleigh, North Carolina
I sat up half the night reading the letters and articles by some of the foremost intellectuals and noted personalities extending their condolences and tributes to the great Richard John Neuhaus, and I was mesmerized.
About twelve years ago I read a copy of First Things given to me by a friend, and I was hooked. After subscribing and reading a few issues, I wrote to Fr. Neuhaus expressing my admiration for First Things and told him that whenever I went to a bookstore I would move the First Things magazines, hidden somewhere in the back of the magazine rack, to the front and center, where they would be more visible. To my surprise, he wrote me to thank me for my comments and my efforts.
About six or seven years ago I wrote to tell him, in all sincerity, that he was the greatest convert to the Catholic faith since Cardinal Newman. He never responded to this letter, but knowing Fr. Richard I suspect he was embarrassed—but probably agreed with me and wondered why I went only as far back as Cardinal Newman.
Four years ago I sent him an article describing my experience growing up Catholic in the early part of the twentieth century. To my surprise and joy he asked me if he could use the article in a book he was writing. After performing a dozen cartwheels, I told him he could use it and vowed to give him the deed to my house if he did use it. In his Catholic Matters, Fr. Neuhaus devoted about a dozen pages to my experience as a young Catholic.
Four days after his death, I received a nudge from Fr. Neuhaus, although skeptics will dismiss this as sheer coincidence. Perhaps they are right—perhaps not. The night of Fr. Neuhaus’ wake, a friend and I drove to New York to attend the service at his church. Since we were early, we decided to have dinner first. Easier said than done in this part of New York.
Although there are about three restaurants on every block, there is no place to park. We rode around for fifteen or twenty minutes passing at least thirty restaurants, looking for one where we could park the car. At last we located a restaurant with a parking space, about ten blocks from the church.
When the headwaiter came to welcome us, we told him we were in a hurry because we had to attend a wake. He immediately asked us if we were going to Fr. Neuhaus’ wake. When we told him we were, he revealed that this was Fr. Neuhaus’ favorite restaurant and that he had dined here regularly. Thanks for reserving that parking space for us, Fr. Richard; now reserve us a space up there.
Florham Park, New Jersey
Thank you for the colored glossy pictures of Richard John Neuhaus in the April issue. I believe my quick tears at the news of this wonderful man’s death as well as my quick tears looking at the pictures of him say something to the effect of his holiness.
I don’t have a television and I haven’t for most years while subscribing to First Things. The magazine, and especially the writing of Fr. Neuhaus, was my source of information. I also enjoyed Father’s sense of humor. How his words helped me—how our dear Lord spoke through him! How his prayers for us in heaven will keep us.
The Future of First Things
I am sure I am not the only First Things subscriber who opened the May issue slowly, wondering what I would find inside.
The passing of Richard John Neuhaus from this world to the next did indeed tilt the world on its axis, and, while I knew First Things could not be exactly the same without him at the helm, I prayed that the staff would take a collective deep breath and figure out how to keep the enterprise not only afloat but engaging, stimulating, and provocative as always.
I turned first, as usual, to “The Public Square” and was not disappointed. Joseph Bottum fired on all cylinders with a pithy style I recognized immediately. The earth was beginning to right itself. “While We’re At It” had a familiar feel, and I was gaining strength. Sally Thomas and Alan Jacobs did not disappoint. And so it went for the entire issue.
Courage, friends. The axis is finding its equilibrium. And this subscriber will continue to support First Things for many years to come, knowing my favorite magazine is in good hands and will continue to honor the legacy and passions of Fr. Neuhaus. Well done, good and faithful servants.
Our Loss of Cardinal Dulles
Thomas Guarino (“Why Avery Dulles Matters,” May 2009) has given many excellent reasons why Avery Cardinal Dulles matters, but I would like to add another: Cardinal Dulles’ awe-inspiring humility and generosity.
Five year ago, the New York C.S. Lewis Society wanted to celebrate the thirty-fifth anniversary of its founding by sponsoring a lecture. When the name of Cardinal Dulles was put forth as a possible lecturer, it was thought to be a wonderful idea, but impossible. Cardinal Dulles surprised us all by not only accepting the invitation but also making no demands on the Society, as so many famous and important people often do. He honored us (and the cosponsors, the Institute of Irish Culture) with his presence.
The topic of his lecture was “C.S. Lewis: The Case for Apologetics,” later published as an essay in the January/February 2005 issue of the CSL Bulletin. The celebration was an overwhelming success—with standing room only—due entirely to his presence. We will always be eternally grateful.
New York C.S. Lewis Society
Glendale, New York
Down in the Darkness
Joseph Bottum’s essay on Cioran is terrific (despite the unnecessary and, I fear, politically motivated shot at Sartre, which, even if true as far as the U.S. public is concerned, is simply false with regard to readers in France or Germany).
It was odd reading the essay, since I spent a fair bit of time with Cioran. Such familiarity in no way gives an interpretive leg up, but reading this comparison between Cioran and La Rochefoucauld—and the phrase about the former being the latter’s great forger is truly brilliant—I kept thinking about what Cioran was like. I always felt that above all he was a provincial (Bottum approaches this a number of times in his piece). La Rochefoucauld wrote as a man at the social and material apogee of his time and as a privileged inhabitant of its greatest city. Cioran wrote as a man always worried that the police—whom La Rochefoucauld would have viewed as his servants—would discover his papers were not in order and deport him.
Cioran’s idealism, even in despair—and how perceptive of Bottum to put it that way—was the despair of an outsider; perhaps, indeed, it is despair only an outsider and an apostate, first from the Orthodox faith of his father and then from his own early fascistic commitments, can feel. La Rochefoucauld would not have been able to understand such feelings, let alone entertain them.
I am not sure, though, that Bottum is right when he says that La Rochefoucauld wanted to be clever. I rather think he would have considered such an impulse vulgar, beneath him. To the contrary, it is Cioran who wanted to be clever, and his accomplishment to have transcended that (parvenu’s) impulse. Again, this is part of what accounts for the strange warmth, even the sentimentality, of Cioran’s work, and in this, as in other ways, he reminds me of Nietzsche.
NewYork, New York
Joseph Bottum’s excellent description of Emil Cioran as “the greatest monster of despair” immediately reminded me of my favorite Psalm, the eighty-eighth, in which the ancient psalmist Heman presents a nearly continuous string of abandonment woes. As we read the dark but poetic passages in Psalm 88, along with Heman we long for and anticipate the answer from God that never comes. Then, at the end, as he stares into the abyss, he concludes with the devastating lament: “My only friend is darkness.” Heman and Cioran are the sirens of ancient and modern despair, the poet and aphorist of the lost. How different are their passions from the annoying, petty complaints of today’s secular humanists (who often assume that belief emanates from the lowest common denominator of comfort seekers). But Cioran and Heman are a different breed: They are solitary, overpowering, intense, and they are both worth listening to in their laments over existence and its fates.
The deep abandonment they describe reminds us how totally lost we are without the diversions and masks that commonly define “normal” life, “good” character, or “meaningful” relationships. But existential despair always eventually points in a positive direction, illuminating a final bit of hope that cannot be refuted or extinguished. This is not Kierkegaard’s leap of faith; it does not involve a brave or willful act at all; yet it is inevitable.
This last hope, however faint, is the passive acceptance that Jesus, even if only a man, remains an individual of virtue worth emulating. This hope remains when all hope is lost. Let’s face it—wandering through Hades on Holy Saturday with a God-forsaken Jesus as a companion, with no resurrected glory, would be preferable to most versions of fiddling on a cloud accompanied by a host of trumpeting believers. And if the suffering and despairing Jesus on the cross is accepted in one’s heart and soul as a virtuous human being—if we can still, staring into our own abyss, wistfully hope to have his fortitude and compassion despite our enduring weaknesses—then is salvation really that far off? Into what abyss can one fall where the example of Jesus as a compassionate and forgiving human being is not already there?
Pascal’s wager on eternal life gives us the practical, if somewhat cynical, aspect of a faith decision (What if eternal life exists?); Camus speaks of a bowstring that is made taut with the pull of despair, but then shoots the arrow of hope (Is not despair transformed by our acceptance of it?); so why can’t the philosophical realist state the obvious even in his despair: Jesus was an uncommon human being, filled with dignity and virtue, who is worth emulating and honoring (Is not this example of dignity and virtue enough reason to live?). Heman can be excused as an ancient, but Cioran should have known that Jesus is with him in his despair. Regardless of the bleak condition of the flock, Jesus hangs a clanging bell around the neck of the blackest sheep in the darkest pit, a bell powered by their own lamentations. And that is enough for anyone to be found—the Spirit will take it from there.
Daniel J. Biezad
San Luis Obispo, California
Please, please. I am a longtime subscriber. No one could be more keen on seeing First Things thrive even after the death of Richard John Neuhaus. He deserves no less. I know you are bending every effort to achieve success—new
staff and everything. But you’re missing the mark by not taking into consideration who your readers are. Your shorter pieces are challenging, just as Neuhaus’ writing was. But the long ones appear to be aimed at the rarified atmosphere of academia.
The most recent one by Joseph Bottum heavy, turgid, bleak in all its commentary. I found myself turning pages to see when it would end.
Making sure only the cognoscenti will undertake to read your magazine undercuts your commitment to advancing the debate on religion, culture, and public life.
Joyce P. Ralph
Fixing the Liturgy
I would like to offer a few thoughts after reading Archbishop Malcolm Ranjith’s surprisingly forthright remarks in “True Development of the Liturgy” (May 2009). It seemed a bit behind events in its references to a “Cardinal Ratzinger,” and a bit premature in its reference to Nicola Giampietro’s True Development of the Liturgy, which will be available in September 2009.
My further efforts to put the article in context, however, yielded one succinct observation by Dietrich von Hildebrand quoted in Pope John’s Council by Michael Davies: “The innovators would replace holy intimacy with Christ by an unbecoming familiarity. The new liturgy actually threatens to frustrate the confrontation with Christ, for it discourages reverence in the face of mystery, precludes awe, and all but extinguishes a sense of sacredness.”
I was raised Irish Catholic in a Protestant stronghold in Northern England, and we were a pretty ignorant lot, I suppose, on many fronts. But people showed up to Mass regularly, genuflected as a matter of course coming and going, stayed stock still during the consecration, and demanded the priest’s services for the bigger moments in life, while managing the old Latin passably enough for their purposes. They certainly never anticipated minor talents blessed with piano lessons being encouraged to reduce the mysterious to sing-alongs. I couldn’t tell from the archbishop’s article precisely what he was about (or First Things, for that matter, in featuring it), but I did get the impression that the good archbishop was trailing his coat on behalf of others equally disenchanted with the state of play in the liturgy. Hopefully, they are powerful enough and motivated enough to do something constructive about it before too long.
William F. Finn
St. Paul, Alberta